Review: Mistress America

Mistress America is the second feature from Noah Baumbach of 2015 to deal with the thorny subject of intellectual property. Where it begins. Where it ends. But where spring’s more user-friendly While We’re Young came by the topic via a subplot that seemingly took over the picture, Mistress America seems more deliberately built to address the issue. In it, 18-year-old college freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke) yearns to be accepted by the campus literary society The Moebius Club, but her initial application finds her rejected. Her mother is remarrying soon, and the new union will afford Tracy an elder step-sister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig). A brash, opinionated, gabby and immeasurably (sometimes inexplicably) charming person, Brooke becomes Tracy’s muse. As the two spend time together Tracy starts building a new short story about her new and eccentric sibling-to-be.

This isn’t the pivotal crux of Mistress America, but it hangs over proceedings like the metaphorical gun on the wall, waiting to go off. Given Baumbach’s recent track record and his partner Gerwig’s inferred personal fallout following 2012’s joyous Frances Ha, it’s all but impossible to watch their new collaborative effort and not read it as autobiographical, or at least self-reflexive. The film builds to a crescendo moment in which the rights and wrongs of ‘adapting’ another person’s life to further your own ends storms front and centre, briefly and awkwardly trampling all over the surrounding narrative, with multiple characters chiming in against the practice. Does Baumbach have an ax to grind, and is he using his movies as his preferred medium for public rebuke? Or, in a more empathic and intuitive way, are the two of them offering a strange apology to whomever felt wronged or used in the creation of Frances Ha and other works by these fine artists?

All art is in some way autobiographical, consciously or not, so the lines and limits are intriguing to explore. This undoubtedly adds a thoughtful cherry atop Mistress America, but it is not the film’s sole purpose. More blatantly and – if your viewpoint is more negative than mine – more indulgently, Mistress America seems first and foremost to be a further springboard for Baumbach to celebrate the conspicuous talents of Gerwig. Personally speaking, I’m all for that and more. Frances Ha is one of my favourite films of this decade so far and Gerwig is responsible for a lion’s share of that love. Even in smaller roles she’s proven to be endearing and memorable. Hers is a star I’m happy to see rise.

If you’ve arrived at Mistress America down similar avenues of intrigue, it’s worth underscoring here that this is in no way Frances Ha 2 and anyone approaching the film expecting as much is likely to be somewhat perplexed by what they encounter. This time around Baumbach and Gerwig have sculpted an altogether scrappier, itchier film, one which cleaves closest to the screwball comedies of the 1940s – especially during an extended sequence that takes place at the country home of Brooke’s ex-fiancé Dylan (Michael Chernus) and his wife Mimi Claire (Heather Lind). Jealousies run riot in this sequence, not least thanks to Tracy and Brooke’s partners in crime; Tracy’s campus friend Tony (Matthew Shear) and his comically suspicious girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), both literally along for the ride. The stage is set for an extraordinarily enjoyable burst of extended farce that breaks up a movie that elsewhere comes across as scattershot and thready in it’s jumping from locale to locale.

Brooke and Tracy are there to try to secure funding for a restaurant Brooke is hoping to open; the latest in a seemingly long line of half-baked creative ideas that Brooke is trying to force into being. She expresses such a passionate urge to be fruitful in any and all creative fields, while managing to be something of a dilettante in all of them. Gerwig’s performance is quite refreshingly free of ego even if it does seem sculpted as something of a showcase. Brooke is tough to like a lot of the time and, initially, almost too much; a chatterbox who veers off on tangents as she cloaks herself in the veneer of self-confidence. Self-confidence so jarring as to expose itself as paper-thin. Overwhelming at the time, it’s only latterly that you start to appreciate what a complete creation Brooke is. Mistress America as a whole works the same way, only with a degree’s less success. When you’re in it it feels bubbly and fizzy and interesting but naggingly fragmented. It’s only afterward that the film feels svelte and easy to contend with.

The film feels like the colour brown; few people’s favourite, but at the same time kind of warming and necessary and cosy and satisfying, and something that’ll help enrich your appreciation of other colours. There’s an autumnal feel to the movie that comes from the fracturing of Brooke’s idealism. As her facade falls, the film at large feels like a requiem for the optimism of being in your twenties. Brooke even articulates this in a key scene. Given this inclination within the script, it’s alot easier to tie Mistress America to While We’re Young than Frances Ha. Baumbach and Gerwig are sagely looking at the changes that take place during adulthood; a place which from the perspective of youth gives the false appearance of a calm plateaux. In these movies one recognises that it is anything but so serene. Indeed, in growing up, there is no ‘top’ from which to view your life.

This is a lesson for Tracy, one of a couple in the movie. Gerwig may steal the limelight through her loud characterisation of Brooke, but Kirke grounds it as Tracy, and really she’s the protagonist here from start to finish. It’s her coming of age story we’re following; it just happens to get agreeably railroaded by someone else.

If Mistress America itself were a restaurant, it’d be the kind of place you’d find people blogging, or reading, or where you’d see someone asking the staff if they can put up a flier for a poetry reading or an improv night. The kind of place where the special is cauliflower fretada. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things. Hell, I’d go to that restaurant. But the metaphor positions Mistress America comfortably within that sphere of New Yorker intellectual indie comedies where everything’s funny, but you don’t really ever laugh out loud. I went to a public screening and sat in a cinema totally by myself. That’s a ridiculous shame. If there’s a whiff of Woody Allen’s irksome snobbery about the picture it’s more than adequately tempered by the multitudinous pleasures it’s quirks have to offer. Give up a little of your time and you’ll have an experience not exactly like any other in the cinema this year.

Score:  3.5

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